“ We have not overcome. We are not post-racial , there is no place that Black folks are safe… History has shown that white supremacist violence is grossly systemic”. ( Lawrence Broca, June 19, 2015)
“Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness, that’s what Church is all about…Sometimes, you may have to die, like Denmark Vesey, in order to do that”. (Clementa Pinckney)
“ Way down South in the Land of Cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten…
Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland”. (Lyrics from Confederate Anthem)
Social traumas and other overwhelming life events tend to happen on the anniversary and sometimes even the exact location of previous and unresolved traumatic events. A recent example of this phenomenon appeared with the June 17th, 2015 mass shooting of African Americans . On this occasion a 21 year old white male entered a Bible study and prayer group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot to death 9 members of that congregation including their beloved senior pastor, State Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Both the date and location of this American tragedy indicate yet another iteration in an ongoing racist and political fractal that dates far back into our history of slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction Era , segregation , Jim Crow discrimination laws ,as well as the often violent Civil Rights struggle during our turbulent nineteen sixties.
The scene of this crime was the Emanuel A.M.E. Church ,affectionately known as “Mother Emanuel”, a historic landmark of African American freedom which has stood in its present location since 1872. This oldest Black church still standing, south of Baltimore, was founded in 1816 by a Black pastor named Morris Brown . This church also served as a spiritual refuge for Denmark Vesey, a former slave , who joined the congregation in 1817 . This charismatic leader , literate as well as fluent in English,Creole and French , often preached a messianic crusade for freedom there and later became a symbol of the abolitionist movement. Vesey was reportedly born in the Caribbean, on St. Thomas in 1757 and was brought to the Palmetto State at age 14 by a slave trader ship’s captain . Aboard the ship Vesey was given the name Telemaque which was gradually corrupted into Telemark and finally Denmark. In 1799 he bought his freedom after winning the state’s lottery but was unable to purchase freedom for his wives and numerous children. (Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “ The Story of Denmark Vesey, theatlantic.com, June, 2015)
In 1822 Vesey planned a slave rebellion originally scheduled for July 14th, Bastille Day, and then moved the date back to midnight June 16th in an operation designed to free the slaves , who together with some 9,000 armed Blacks, would then fight their way to the docks and escape to Haiti. June 17th, therefore ,would have been the day that the fighting would have broken out, all Whites killed, and the entire city of Charleston torched . This revolt failed when a troubled slave informed his master of the rumors of insurrection. Vesey was arrested , tortured , given a secret trial and hung along with five co-conspirators. By early August the total executed had grown to 35 and many others were imprisoned or shipped off to slave traders. While Whites still refer to Vesey as a terrorist , for Blacks he was a freedom fighter. Soon after the trials, Mother Emanuel was razed to the ground by White Supremacists and then re-built at a later time, with the help of one of Vesey’s sons. (Yoni Applebaum, theatlantic.com, June 18,2015 and David Robertson, Denmark Vesey
Since those early times, Black churches , born out of protest, have continued to remain symbols of African American community and culture. Viewed with suspicion by many Whites, because they built schools, taught literacy and helped families raise their children these houses of worship have been forbidden, dismantled terrorized and burned. Nevertheless, and to this day, Black churches have carried on as centers of social and political life and opposition to their existence has carried on, as well, with nearly endemic campaigns of overt and covert intimidation. In the South, White privilidge has traditionally been maintained through any number of violent means.
Given that identified gunman Dylan Roof was a high school drop out ,one might be tempted to reason that he had little interest or knowledge of history and therefore his specifically choosing the iconic Emanuel A.M.E. Church on the historic date of June 17th for his racist rampage was co-incidental. However, photos on his Facebook page , often together with the Confederate flag, reveal an avid interest in slavery, Civil War and White Supremacist doctrine. Roof later stated that he chose Charleston “ because it is the most historic city in my state and at one time had the highest ratio of Blacks to Whites in the country”. He also visited some of the South’s most notorious slave plantations, Confederate landmarks and cemeteries along with day trips to Sullivan’s Island port which was the point of entry for nearly 40% of Northern America’s slaves. ( Wills Robinson, dailymail.co.uk, June, 20th, 2015)
As Dylan Roof opened fire in the Bible study group, he clearly verbalized his fears that “Blacks are taking over the country”. While he may have acted alone , he was clearly not alone in his sentiments. As our demographic shift toward a majority of people of color, there exists a growing fear that these and other minorities, including homosexuals, transgender citizens, immigrants, the massively incarcerated, dyslexics , physically and intellectually disabled and differently-abled are erupting into a wave of rebellion that has been seething under under the surface for a very long time. Their growing sense of newly discovered support for outlier entitlement has become a recent and growing process that is belatedly transforming our political landscape. Whereas many within these disadvantaged and minority communities are experiencing hope , and some degree of empowerment, there are also others from more entitled and entrenched populations who have reacted with resentment ,fear based anger and hate crimes. (Alicia Garza,truth-out.org, June 19, 2015)
In our current reality ,we also have the widely promoted views of perhaps well meaning analysts ,who choose to ignore or minimize any larger context or historical and societal factors contributing to this shooting event and attribute Dylan Roof’s actions solely to a mental illness crisis induced by psychotropic medication which have admittedly played a major role in so many other mass shootings. By now you have perhaps noticed that White shooters are often described as “mentally ill”, whereas the media often characterizes shooters of color as “terrorists” and “thugs”. ( Amanda Butler, commondreams.org, June 19, 2015)
This tragic Charleston event was also perceived by many observers as political, not only in regard to race relations but also within a context of ongoing and divisive debates around issues of both free speech and gun control. National Rifle Association Board Member Charles L. Cotton wasted no time in blaming Clementa Pinckney for his own death ,as well as that of his parishioners, because as a State Senator he did not support legislation that would have allowed concealed weapons in places of worship. (Texas CHLForum.com ). Never mind the glaring reality that there is no evidence whatsoever that civilians with guns either limits or prevents mass shootings. ( Daniel Marans, huffingtonpost.com, June 19, 2015)
While we are on the subject of anniversary fractals ,the month of June is important in African American history. This year of 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the June 19th, 1865 when news of emancipation and Civil War’s end finally reached America’s last group of slaves, in Galveston Texas. In Black communities, Juneteenth (combination of June +19th ) is recognized as a holiday in over 40 states. ( Chase Madar,vice.com, June 19, 2015).